Steve Chapman

This declaration should not be taken on faith, but it's not just lip service. Democratic elections have become common at the village level. The government clearly strives to take public sentiment into account in making policy. When an earthquake devastated Sichuan province a year ago, foreign reporters were allowed unprecedented freedom to cover the aftermath. A system of law is emerging.

The average person now enjoys far more personal freedom and independence than the Chinese of previous generations. "I am often surprised by how accustomed people in China have grown to expressing political opinions in private, in ways that would have been unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago," Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University, told me.

Chinese blogs and websites don't shy from social ills and government abuses, and some 300 million people have access to the Internet. On a recent trip to China, I found access to the Human Rights Watch website blocked. But when I searched U.S. newspapers for criticisms of the Chinese government by the group, they were freely accessible.

The demise of totalitarianism is apparent from the willingness of ordinary Chinese to express their discontent. Last year, there were 120,000 "mass incidents," such as strikes and demonstrations, and the pace has accelerated this year.

There are, however, still grave risks in challenging the government. Freedom House, the New York-based human rights organization, says China's labor camps and prisons hold hundreds of thousands of religious and political prisoners. In a basic way, the regime responsible for the Tiananmen Square tragedy has not changed.

But as societies grow richer, history indicates, they invariably become democratic, as Taiwan and South Korea did not so long ago. China's rulers clearly fear they will eventually fall to the same iron law.

In light of the government's poor human rights record, genuine rule by the people may seem as distant today as it did on June 4, 1989. But if there is one safe assumption, it's that the crucial chapters on Chinese democracy are yet to be written.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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